Whether you are choosing a school for the first time for your child or your child is making the transition to a new school, you probably have many questions. What are your options? How much choice do you really have? What’s the best option for your child and your family? Where should you begin?
School choice options available to parents have increased dramatically in recent years. There’s a growing national sentiment that promoting competition in public education may spur schools to improve and that parents who invest energy in choosing a school will continue to be involved in their child’s education.
Where to begin
Think about your child’s needs and your family’s needs. Consider the personality of your child. A quiet child might fare better in a smaller school or a school with small class size. If you have a budding musician or scientist, you’ll want to look for a school that has programs in these areas. Is it important to you that your school be close to home or your place of work? Or will you need a school with before and after-school care? Check out the following articles for ideas on what to consider:
Choosing a School: Considering Family Needs and Values
Choosing a School: Considering Your Child’s Needs
What are your options?
Your neighborhood school
Generally, your first option is your neighborhood school. Each public school district sets up its own rules and boundaries for each school in the district, so it is best to check with your local district to find out which school your child will be assigned to, and what the rules are for attending charter schools, magnet schools, or other schools within or outside your local district.
One of the most significant changes in public education in recent years has been the growth of the charter school movement. Charter schools are public schools that are liberated from some of the traditional school regulations required by the state. These schools are bound by charter agreements granted by local school boards. If they don’t meet the requirements of their charter, they can be shut down. Charter school enrollment is voluntary and is not governed by neighborhood boundaries, which means your child can choose to attend any charter school within your district, or outside your district, so long as there is space available. Schools that are in high demand usually have a lottery to determine who will be eligible to attend.
School districts generally set their own policies for intradistrict transfers (from one school in the district to another) and interdistrict transfers (to a school outside the district). Preferences are often given to children whose child care provider is near a particular school, or whose parents work in the city where the school is located. Most school districts have an appeals process if your request is denied. Space limitations often make transfers difficult, and each district’s process has its own regulations, so be sure to check with your local district for specific requirements.
Magnet schools are another option offered by many school districts. Magnet schools generally have a particular focus, such as art or technology, or follow a different structural organization, such as mixing different grade levels within one classroom, or operating on a year-round schedule. Magnet schools are not governed by neighborhood boundaries; they draw students from throughout the school district and must accept students on a nondiscriminatory basis.
These are generally schools whose educational philosophies are different from traditional programs. Typically, alternative schools have small classes, a social and emotional development curriculum and a self-paced academic curriculum. This title is used officially as well as informally to describe a wide range of schools, so it’s important to ask specific schools why they are classified as “alternative.”
Private schools are schools that do not receive funding from the state. They set up their own criteria for admission. Families of the students pay tuition or, in some cases, students receive scholarships to attend. The teachers, principal, board of directors (and sometimes the parents and students) decide upon curriculum, teaching methodology and enrollment requirements. Private schools are not required to hire credentialed teachers. More
Another option is for parents to teach their children at home instead of sending them to a public or private school. Each state has different laws governing homeschooling. Many communities have organizations that assist homeschooling families with curriculum and opportunities to meet other homeschoolers. More
How much choice do you really have?
It depends. The amount of choice varies from one school district to another, and varies from state to state. In most instances, it depends on supply and demand, and schools that are well regarded are generally in high demand. So if you are hoping to transfer your child to a popular school outside your home district, or a popular charter or magnet school, you may find it difficult.
Always check with your local district to learn the rules, and once you have applied for a transfer, keep checking on the status of your application. In some districts, spots will open up at the last minute or once the school year has begun, so it’s a good idea to keep checking back with the school.
Narrowing the field
Once you have considered your options, you can check the school’s stats on GreatSchools.org. You’ll find school profiles for virtually every public school with information on test scores, teacher-student ratios and ethnic makeup.
Check to see if the school has Parent Reviews posted. Parent Reviews tell the story of the school behind the numbers — the quality of the teachers, level of parent involvement, principal’s leadership and extracurricular activities.
The school visit
No amount of reading or research about a school can tell you as much as you’ll learn by actually visiting the campus. Even a short visit, when you know what to look for and what questions to ask, will guide you in making the right decision. For help on planning your visit, what to look for and what questions to ask, check:
The School Visit: Things to Look For, Questions to Ask
Applications and enrollment
When you’ve made your choice, the next step is to find out what’s required to enroll. Most public schools will require proof of your address and your child’s health and immunization record. Check with your local district to find out the specific paperwork required, and the application deadlines.
Check well in advance of the school year, too. Even if you have chosen your neighborhood school, you’ll want to be sure to secure your spot. In some districts, if there isn’t room at your neighborhood school, the district can send you to a “host” school, which may not be in your immediate neighborhood.
Your role is just beginning once you have chosen a school for your child. By staying involved you can be an advocate for your child’s education, and the education of all children at the school.